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5 Things About The Business World You Don’t Learn In School

Winston Ibrahim

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Formal education didn’t prepare me for the real world.

In high school, I attended a very prestigious prep school in San Francisco, called San Francisco University High. It is renowned as being one of the hardest private schools in the country, and I almost flunked out because I didn’t understand the purpose of many of my classes (and I didn’t have any problem telling my teachers I thought so). I just couldn’t see how organic chemistry or geology or other specialized subjects were relevant to where I wanted to go in life or the things I wanted to do.

Instead, I’ve always been a self-directed learner—and that’s something I’m very enthusiastic about. Even as a kid, I had to understand the value I was receiving in exchange for my time. “Am I going to get something out of this? Or am I just checking a box?” If I was ever just checking a box, I wasn’t interested. And I am still very much that way today.

When I reflect on what I gained from my education, I can’t say very much of it has remained relevant.

These are the 5 things about the business world you don’t learn in school.

1. Think for yourself. Don’t think by the book.

My dad is an incredible business person, and I think I learned the most just watching him over the years.

Growing up with him as my father, I was constantly hearing about business or the stock market. I have many memories of driving in the car with my dad to or from high school and hearing him talk business on the phone, or share with me little details about his day to day life. These were small moments, but at a young age they gave me a glimpse into what business was really about: waking up every day excited to solve new problems. 

Every business person I’ve met or built a relationship with since, and especially as I got further into my career as an entrepreneur, has learned through trial and error. There isn’t a book on the planet that carries “all the answers.” 

Instead, you have to learn how to think for yourself—and apply the things you learn as you see fit.

2. Relationship building is a skill—and it matters more than any other skill in the real world.

My freshman year of college, I joined a fraternity.

And by senior year, I was one of the executive committee members.

This was one of the first times I got exposure to how the world really works outside of the classroom—specifically in terms of the value of relationships, and being able to mesh well with different types of people. Because the superpower of human beings is cooperation. You can’t achieve anything meaningful without vesting people who are experienced and capable relevant to the task at hand—especially if you’re an entrepreneur.

This skill set isn’t something that gets emphasized in regular schooling.

Instead, it’s something that materializes in extracurricular activities, particularly social groups which are totally disorganized. Those are the situations where you start to get a taste of the free reign of human behavior and how things actually work in the world.

3. Success isn’t about working hard. It’s about working smart to find your edge.

I always found school to be incredibly easy.

College, in particular, showed me that success really isn’t about being the smartest person in the room. It’s about learning the rules of the game and figuring out where you have an edge. For example, one of the values of joining a top fraternity is that you have decades worth of back tests for every class. You don’t really have to work that hard when you have all the material you need on tests that have been around for twenty years. You just copy and paste the information into your brain, memorizing all the right answers the night before the exam.

That was a profound lesson for me. It showed me there are absolutely advantages in life and in business, and your success has far more to do with finding those advantages than it does having a higher IQ than the next guy.

4. You learn more by putting yourself in situations of consequence.

School is like one big safety net.

When you’re young, that’s a good thing. But the older you get, the more that safety net starts to hold you back.

What you need, arguably more than anything else, is to be in situations of consequence. Fear of getting a “B” on an exam isn’t a real consequence. Losing someone’s money, or failing to follow through on an obligation that could damage a key relationship in your life, those are consequences. And I hate to say it, but the world doesn’t always reward the smartest person. The people who typically excel the most in school are the highest intellectuals. And yet, in society they are far less compensated than entrepreneurs with a high school education who have mastered the skill of dealing with people, building high-leverage relationships, and handling situations of true consequence.

5. Start sooner. Academic organizations are not accurate reflections of the real world.

If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t start being an entrepreneur sooner.

Bureaucratic academic organizations are completely disconnected from reality. Unless you want to spend your life and career in academia, you have to make it a priority to get off that boat—because the rest of your life is not going to be filled with lectures, homework, and final exams. Especially if you want a career in business, you’re in for a very rude awakening.

The most successful people in life didn’t wait for a class or a professor or a book to tell them how to do the thing they were passionate about. Instead, they followed their curiosity and soaked up knowledge in as many ways as they possible could—the most valuable form being first-hand experience. I consider this “practical knowledge.” 

You don’t know how to do things “in theory.”

You know how because you’ve spent time in the trenches yourself.

I am the founder and CEO of Hydros, an innovative water filtration startup with proprietary technology that works at five times the speed of standard home filtration systems. We strive to create beautiful, convenient, and competitively priced portable and home filtration products to reduce the consumption of single-use disposable plastic bottles.

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